First person present tense

Over at Janet Reid’s website, a question about writing in first-person-present. Does it work? Can it sell? Does it turn agents off?

Janet’s answer:

Yes/No/It depends/maybe.

How’s that for a clear answer?

Here’s the real answer: if someone writes back to tell you that present tense doesn’t work in the novel, it’s not about the tense. It’s because the story didn’t grip them enough to forget about syntax, diction, tense and grammar and just KEEP READING!

My colleague Penny Moore and I were talking about this very thing recently. Some really not-well-written books are doing very well because the writer grabs you and doesn’t let go.

Only later, when you’re deconstructing the book (something most regular readers don’t really do!) do you notice plot holes, inconsistencies, and the stuff that makes you wonder what the hell the editor/agent/writer were thinking.

I agree. For me the book that leaps to mind here is DIVERGENT. I found that one a thoroughly gripping read, even though imo it has enormous worldbuilding issues. Even while reading I was like, Really? Are you kidding me? Seriously? But it was a definite page-turner even so.

However, it seems to me that the book that ought to have answered this question is THE HUNGER GAMES. There you go. First person present tense. Did it work? Obviously. Did readers mind the style? Obviously not. Would agents automatically turn down a first-person-present novel on the basis that it is written in that style? Plainly not — or surely not any who are paying attention.

Whether you as a writer are good enough to pull off what is, in my opinion, an intrinsically difficult style is a whole ‘nother question. Just as the early UF writers set a trend for first person, the success of THE HUNGER GAMES no doubt set a trend for first-person-present-tense dystopias. I haven’t read a wide range, but I suspect a whole lot of novice writers who fell in love with THE HUNGER GAMES tried or are trying to write stories in that style, and while that is fine, I expect lots of them will not pull it off. While everyone is different and some writers no doubt fall naturally into a first-person style, I remain convinced that the simplest, most straightforward style for most people is third person past tense limited viewpoint. If you are struggling with a story and can’t seem to pull it off, recasting the first chapters in that simpler style might be a useful exercise.

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2 thoughts on “First person present tense”

  1. This was really helpful! Do you have any thoughts about the advantages of first person present tense?

  2. I don’t know, Adrian. I suspect some (lots?) of younger readers are now used to it and for them it feels like a natural choice and possibly carries a sense of immediacy and identification with the protagonist. Those qualities are sometimes cited as advantages to the style. On the other hand, I know for sure that many (most?) older readers are not going to feel that way at all because for them third person past tense is the only “invisible” style.

    The best thorough treatment of viewpoint that I know of is in Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint.

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